After a wild offseason full of trades, free-agent signings and trash-talking, we’ve reached the beginning of the NBA regular season. It tips off tomorrow night with a double-header, featuring the Boston Celtics vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors vs. the Houston Rockets. With opening night upon us, we look at the 10 most interesting questions/storylines to watch during the upcoming season.
Will the Boston Celtics come out on top in the Eastern Conference?
The Celtics made some of the summer’s biggest moves, reeling in Gordon Hayward in free agency and then trading for Kyrie Irving when he expressed an interest in leaving Cleveland. Boston was demolished by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals last year and, in theory, these additions will help the Celtics overcome the roadblock that is LeBron James. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford should combine to form a potent group that wins a bunch of games. But is it enough to dethrone the King from atop his perch in the East?
How will James Harden and Chris Paul co-exist in Houston?
James Harden and Chris Paul were two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA last season, ranking in the top four in assist rate and the top 50 in usage rate. FiveThirtyEight did a full deep-dive into this topic from the stats side of things, and it boils down to this: we’ve never seen a pairing like this on the same team. How the two will fit together is interesting because both have traditionally been at their most effective with the ball in their hands. That said, both have previously shown the ability to work off the ball too. How quickly they find a balance of controlling possessions between the two will determine the heights this team can reach.
Can the Thunder do enough to convince Paul George to stay after this season?
Paul George has been rumored to be going to the Lakers in free agency for a full two years. The Lakers were even slapped on the wrist by the league this summer in the form of a fine for “tampering” with George. The interest seems to be mutual. However, George still has a full year ahead of him, and he finds himself on an interesting Oklahoma City team featuring stars in Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Westbrook just re-upped with the team, and Melo has a player option for next year. Could the Thunder push the Warriors enough to make the case to George that his best chance to win resides in OKC?
Are the Timberwolves ready to make a leap?
The Timberwolves are the darlings of preseason predictions this year. They enter Year 2 under Tom Thibodeau with a potentially explosive young core that was augmented by the trade for Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson and the signing of Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford in free agency. Will those veterans help the Wolves improve what was a porous defensive group last year? Can they survive having three ball-dominant players on the floor at the same time? Are they ready to end the playoff drought in a brutally tough Western Conference?
The race for the final four playoff spots in the West
As mentioned, the West is absolutely brutal. Outside of the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder, there are arguably eight teams vying for the final four playoff spots. Seriously, you could put any of eight different teams in spots five through eight, and I wouldn’t argue. The Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks are seemingly all in the hunt for a playoff spot. There’s a good chance that the nine, 10 and maybe 11 teams out West are better than the 7th and 8th seeds in the East.
Who wins Rookie of the Year?
Lonzo Ball has been hyped all summer. Ben Simmons returns to the floor for the Sixers after missing all of last year. He’s joined by this year’s #1 pick Markelle Fultz. Jayson Tatum looks to make an impact in Boston. De’Aaron Fox has the reigns in Sacramento. Kyle Kuzma has been playing like a man possessed all summer/preseason and now finds himself smack dab in the middle of this conversation. Then there’s Dennis Smith Jr. in Dallas. This rookie class is one of the most hyped to enter the league in awhile, and it will be fun to see who ends up taking home the hardware.
Will the Sixers stay healthy?
Sixers fans have been waiting patiently through “The Process” of continuously playing for high draft picks and developing young players. Unfortunately, some of the high upside picks they’ve made have ended up injured the past few years. Most notable, of course, is center Joel Embiid, who was a supernova for 31 games last year before missing the rest of the year with a torn meniscus. Ben Simmons is returning from a broken foot. Markelle Fultz sprained his ankle this summer. If they stay healthy, this Sixers team will be fun to watch. If not, the feeling of despair may start to sink in for their fans.
Can the Wizards break through to the Conference Finals?
John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are all coming off of career years. They all also got paid by the team with Beal signing an extension last year, Porter signing a massive deal in restricted free agency, and Wall signing a contract extension this summer. There isn’t a ton of depth outside of those three. Kelly Oubre is a nice piece off the bench, as is Jodie Meeks, but outside of those two, there are a lot of question marks. So, how far can this trio carry the team? Can they bust through to the conference finals for the first time since the 1978-79 season, when they were still known as the Bullets?
Will any of the offseason moves even matter?
The moves came hot and heavy this offseason for one main reason: everyone is trying to catch the Golden State Warriors. Ultimately, the moves may not matter. The Warriors, against all odds, seem to have found ways to get better this summer, adding Nick Young and Omri Casspi to their bench while bringing back all of their major pieces. They’ll be in the second year of playing with Kevin Durant, and he should be fully integrated into their system. This team reached levels of un-guardable that were just comical last year and they could be even better.